As cash-strapped airlines pack more passengers on flights into ever-busier airports, pilots are filing internal complaints warning that airline cost-cutting on fuel supplies could be creating a major safety risk.
The complaints, compiled by msnbc.com and NBC News from a database of safety incident reports maintained on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration, reveal wide-ranging concern among pilots that airlines are compelling them to fly with too little fuel.
With the cost of jet fuel having doubled in the past year, according to Energy Department figures released last month, airlines are eager to save fuel costs.
Continental Airlines, for example, issued two bulletins last year expressing concern over the number of refueling stops that some flights were making en route to Newark, N.J., one of which observed that “adding fuel indiscriminately without critical thinking ultimately reduces profit sharing and possibly pension funding.”
FAA regulations are precise: A plane must take off with enough primary fuel to reach its destination and then its most distant alternate airport based on conditions. It must carry a reserve of 45 minutes’ worth of fuel on top of that.
But Karl Schricker, a spokesman for the 12,000-member Allied Pilots Association, the largest independent pilots union, said some pilots believed the FAA guidelines were not enough in an era when airlines are seeking to save costs by having aircraft carry the minimum fuel required. If a pilot has to stay in a long holding pattern before landing, the extra fuel can dwindle quickly.
“You don’t want to be at absolute minimum fuel and go to put the gear down and have the gear not come down,” he said.
Pilots challenged on fuel requests
Less fuel means a lighter plane; a lighter plane means better gas mileage, saving the airline money.
Under FAA regulations, pilots have the final say on how much fuel they take on board, but they say that when they question the fuel levels suggested in their flight plans, their judgment is frequently challenged.
“Apparently, it is not uncommon for the flight dispatcher to question the captain if he feels it necessary to add fuel,” one pilot reported.
Pressure from airlines and dispatchers to conserve fuel made another pilot no longer certain whether “I, as captain, have final authority on what I deem is a minimum safe fuel load for the flight or do I not.”
Wrote a third: “It’s almost like a contest to see how far we can spread this company thin, and when an accident happens, we’ll start reintroducing the safety elements we once had.”
‘That’s an absurd allegation’While individual complaints are dramatic, the documents do not make it possible to paint a precise picture of pilots’ unease.
The reports do not represent a valid statistical sample, for example, because they are voluntary and by definition incomplete. And they are redacted to conceal the identities of the pilots, making it impossible to verify individual statements. But NASA, which maintains the Aviation Safety and Reporting System, says it considers the database a reliable and conservative snapshot of events.
David A. Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, vigorously disputed the idea that airlines would cut corners on safety to save money.
“That’s an absurd allegation,” he said. “There are no shortcuts in the operation of the aircraft, and no carrier is going to compromise the safe operation of a flight.”
He referred to comments last week by Gerard Arpey, chief executive of American Airlines, who acknowledged that the FAA’s order to ground 300 MD-80 jets for new inspections in connection with an unrelated issue would cost the company “tens of millions of dollars” but said the cost was beside the point.
“No one would put a plane in service that wasn’t safe,” Arpey said.
FAA guidelines called too skimpyIt has been nearly 20 years since a commercial passenger airliner crashed in the United States because it ran out of fuel, according to the aviation safety site AirSafe.com. An Avianca Airlines 707 flying from Bogota, Colombia, fell 16 miles short of John F. Kennedy International Airport on Jan. 20, 1990, killing 73 passengers.
Numerous regulations, guidelines and fail-safes are built in to the U.S. aviation system to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But the incident reports reflect pilots’ concerns that the margin of error could be narrowing.
Some pilots accuse dispatchers of underestimating or overlooking flight conditions so they could say the fuel allocations they recommended met the FAA’s requirements.
“A combination of minimum fuel flight planning with unrealistic flight plans combine to create hazardous fuel situations,” the pilot of a Boeing 737 wrote. “... Flight plans are issued, according to written guidance, without regard for the reality of the day.”
Following local news reports late last year that some airliners were arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey with dangerously little fuel left in their tanks, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said: “We don't have any indication right now that airlines are flying planes with less than the required amount of fuel.”
But Schricker said, “Management is juggling, and what they do by doing that is they decrease the margin of safety.”
As a result, said Russ Miller, an air traffic controller at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, aircraft now often sound minimum-fuel alerts while they are in holding patterns.
“It puts a lot of pressure on the system when they’re trying to run at the margins,” Miller said.
Senators demand federal action Until now, evidence that planes could be flying with inadequate fuel was chiefly anecdotal, but even then, it was troubling enough to catch the attention of Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. They called on the Transportation Department in November to investigate the Newark stories.
“Operating under these conditions regularly can put passengers at risk, especially if multiple landing attempts must be made,” Lautenberg wrote in a letter to Calvin L. Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
In a report released Wednesday, the Transportation Department’s inspector general confirmed that based on its study of 20 sample arrivals, “minimum and emergency fuel declarations had increased on flights into the Newark area,” most of them on international flights. It said the FAA was reviewing when and how pilots should declare minimum and emergency fuel declarations at Liberty Airport.
Among the possible causes the report cited for the fuel declarations were “fuel-saving measures” that were instigated after Continental Airlines issued the two fuel bulleints last year, in February and October. The second bulletin expressly tied “excessive” refueling to lower profits.
Continental officials reassured the investigators that it was not their intention to pressure pilots to fly with insufficient fuel, the report said.
The report blamed the rash of low-fuel declarations on flights into Newark primarily on “confusion among flight crew members and air traffic controllers about the difference between minimum and emergency fuel declarations.”
Pilots speak out publicly
The filings reviewed by msnbc.com are the first public documentation of pilots’ misgivings. The number of fuel supply complaints — which are included in more than half of all reports detailing flights on which crews declared a “minimum fuel” situation or a more critical “fuel emergency” — and the consistency of their message suggest that concern over fuel levels is widespread.
“It is obvious to me that in order to save the high fuel price ... we were dispatched with a minimum fuel load,” the captain of an Airbus A319 wrote after an incident last year. “Dispatchers often cut it so close to save a couple hundred dollars and risk a diversion with the expenses of more fuel, missed connections, out of base customs and longer crew days.”
‘Economy to the detriment of safety’It is especially galling, pilots say, when dispatchers and air traffic controllers on the ground contest their judgment that they don’t have enough fuel.
“Upon arrival, I called dispatch to see what the fuel load that was planned for [the] flight to [O’Hare International Airport in Chicago]. I was told it was 75,000 lbs and I asked for it to be upped to 90,000 lbs,” one pilot wrote. “I was challenged by the dispatcher as to why and said I will not fly with less. ...
“I have flown 27 of these flights in the last 60 days and on every flight that I requested additional fuel I have been challenged about my request,” this pilot complained.
Castelveter, of the Air Transport Association, reiterated that it was the captain who had the final say on how much fuel a flight took on, not the dispatcher or anyone else on the ground.
If there is reason to believe that a pilot is making an unnecessary request, “why shouldn’t a dispatcher question the decision?” Castelveter said. “That doesn’t mean to say he overrides the decision.”
With crude oil selling at more than $110 a barrel, he said, “there’s no reason to top off if you don’t need a full fuel complement.”
It is clear from the reports, however, that some pilots fear that the airlines are emphasizing “economy to the detriment of safety,” as one of them wrote.
Early last year, after a flight on which “just about everything that you could have [gone] wrong with it” did, the first officer filed an unusually long report.
“We’ve taken just about every facet of what we once had as a safety net and reduced it to saving 50 cents where we can,” the officer wrote, adding:
“I am absolutely confident that if this is the way this company is going to play the game we will soon be on ‘CNN,’ and not in a good way.”
is a reporter for msnbc.com. is an investigative correspondent for NBC station KXAS of Dallas. NBC affiliate KETK of Tyler, Texas, contributed to this report.